Su Xiao Bai: China’s artistic outlier

Although Su Xiao Bai’s large scale monochromatic paintings are so full of intention, it is amazing to think that his preferred medium – lacquer – was discovered by chance.

Su was on a cultural exchange programme in Fujian province when he ran out of pigment. Lacquerware was being produced locally, however, and Su decided to experiment. Mastering lacquer as a medium was an exhaustive process; it took him, the artist has said, four or five years working with it before he felt confident. (And help was in short supply; lacquerware companies were mostly family-run and secretive.)

Yet now, the overall impression from one of Su’s blended blocks of reflective colour is quiet confidence with a lingering sense of power and control. His sleek works are both hedonistic and mystical, defiantly sculptural while exquisitely painted.

Although Su’s early work tended towards social realism, any figurative subject matter or imagery has long been banished, leaving these glossy pools, their imponderable depths reflecting back our own thoughts.

This marriage between form and intelligence also brings together the history of China’s decorative arts and European abstraction. Su studied at the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf under Marcus Lupertz and Gerhard Richter, in the late 1980s, reinforcing his decision to paint rather than move into more conceptual art as many of his contemporaries did.

The curator Paul Moorhouse has said of Su Xiao Bai’s recent work: “The imperative to create a purely abstract art—visual statements free of external references and intrusive associations—has been a surprisingly elusive quest in 20th-century Western art … It may be that only by denying overt visual ‘incident’, as such, that the associative qualities of a work of art can be denied, permitting its autonomous identity to emerge unscathed.

“In Su’s work, this exclusive approach has been remarkably liberating, permitting the creation of paintings which as far as possible shake off the ubiquitous compulsion to interpret, encouraging instead a response to their intrinsic nature.”

The perfect pool created by Su’s lacquered technique is therefore both the repository for our ideas and a chance to involve them. The artist himself has said he “leaves nothing behind” – meaning he rejects no influences, drawing on everything he has learned. Looking deeply into his lacquered works allows us to do the same.

Bruno Wang, founder of the Pureland Foundation

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